Jun 17, 2019

The rising risk of war in the Middle East, CNN.com

The rising risk of war in the Middle East

Updated 4:29 PM ET, Thu June 13, 2019

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of "United States of Jihad: Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.

(CNN)Recent attacks on shipping, including oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and missile attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels directed at targets inside Saudi Arabia are ratcheting up tensions in the Middle East.

At the same time, Iran is promising to restart elements of its nuclear program.

Add to this the deployment last month of a significant US military force to the region to counter Iran and you get a combustible mix that could be the spark for a wider regional war arising out of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia -- unless steps are taken to lower the tension.

On Thursday two tankers, one of which was carrying oil, were struck by mysterious attacks in the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.

The straits between Oman and Iran are the key choke point for oil coming out of the Middle East. A third of the world's sea-borne oil transits the straits.

In May two Saudi oil tankers and two other ships were also attacked in the Straits of Hormuz.

John Bolton, President Trump's national security adviser, said two weeks ago that Iran was "almost certainly" responsible for the attacks in May. Iranian officials have denied the charge. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed the Iranians for the newest attacks.

As a result of the increasing tensions with Iran, Bolton announced last month that the United States was deploying a carrier strike group to the Middle East.

John Bolton and the lost art of honest brokering

President Trump also announced that he was sending an additional 1,500 US troops to the region because of Iranian actions in the Middle East.

The most recent attacks on the oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz came only a day after Houthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles into Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, wounding 26 civilians at Abha airport in the south of the kingdom.

The Houthis have frequently fired Iranian-supplied missiles into Saudi Arabia during recent years.

Imagine the reaction in the United States if a Chinese-supported militia took over most of Mexico and then fired scores of missiles at Texas cities, and you get an approximation of how the Saudis feel about the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen on their southern border.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting a deadly proxy war in Yemen that has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians.

Now that the US has pulled out of Iranian nuclear agreement, Iran is promising to resume elements of its nuclear program.

At the same time, Saudi foreign policy is directed by the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), who has proven an impetuous leader presiding over the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the blockade of Saudi Arabia's neighbor Qatar and, according to the CIA, the murder of US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

MBS has compared the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Hitler and is vying with Iran to be the dominant power in the Middle East.

How might tensions in the Middle East be lowered? A key would be to end the war in Yemen. This would require the United States to lend more of its weight to the United Nations-led peace process in Yemen and to put pressure on the Saudis to agree to some kind of a political settlement in the country.

In exchange, the United States should provide additional intelligence and anti-missile technology to the Saudis to prevent the Houthis from continuing to launch missiles into their kingdom.